How VR and AR helps manufacturing: An overview

How AR and VR help manufacturing

Ray Kurzweil, the renowned inventor, and futurist, introduced a theory he calls “The Law of Accelerating Returns.” The theory states, in the simplest terms possible, that the rate of technological progress you and I will witness over the next century is more than the technological progress all of humanity has achieved over the past 20,000 years.

We can already see this today when we look at the technology that has emerged over the last decade. Blockchain is disrupting the world of finance and trade, Artificial Intelligence is weaving its way through the fabrics of our lives, and both AR and VR are taking countless industries by storm. To truly see the effect modern technology is having on our lives, let’s look at one of the above technologies, AR and VR, and see the impact it is having on a single industry, manufacturing.

For manufacturing, there are several steps involved in transforming a simple concept into a finished product ready for shipping. That said, we will focus on a few of those steps only and see how AR and VR are changing the game.

1) Product Design

Before a prototype can be built, engineers have first to design the product and make sure that it’ll be able to fulfil its primary function. Fortunately, with AR, engineers can “see” their designs in real life and figure out how they can optimise them. For instance, Ford, the car manufacturer, has always been known for being on the cutting edge of technology.

On the one hand, introducing conveyor belts to its car assembly line changed the automotive industry forever, and, on the other hand, Henry Ford is considered by many to be the father of lean manufacturing.

So, in that same vein, Ford has been using virtual technology to aid its engineers with designing cars since 1999. What’s more, Ford uses VR to test their cars’ mechanics in different simulated road and weather conditions to make them safer.

2) Prototyping

Once a product is designed, the engineering team needs to make sure it meets the prerequisite specifications, forcing them to build a prototype that they can test and use to iron out any kinks in their designs. The prototyping process can be costly, but with VR, engineers can cut costs and test several parts of their design virtually.

For example, Boeing is an excellent case in point of a company that has incorporated the use of VR into their manufacturing process so as eliminate the need to build a full-scale model.

In fact, by using HoloLens, which is a VR product made by Microsoft, Boeing’s engineers look at individual pieces of equipment that go into making the final product and assemble those pieces virtually before a single nut or bolt has been lifted.

3) Product Manufacturing Process

AR and VR have so much to offer at this stage that we’ll never be able to cover everything. That said, we might as well try to go over a few things.For starters, seeing as most employees tend to be practical learners, AR and VR can prove to be essential tools in training the workforce.

Rather than wait 20 years to get an employee with 20 years’ worth of experience, you could have an employee run through countless simulations of scenarios they could run into on the factory floor. Also, you could simulate risky scenarios, even emergencies without ever putting employees in real danger.

Thanks to this virtual technology, employees don’t need to be experts in assembling the product because AR technology can do a lot of the heavy lifting for them. Armed with AR smart glasses, employees will always be able to see what part goes where and how these parts should be assembled, all of which happens in real-time. The image overlays that are projected with AR glasses have an accuracy of up to a few millimetres.

The use of virtual technology can facilitate Even factory floorplanning. Engineers designing a new plant can figure out the optimal place to situate the tools and equipment to maximise efficiency while minimising clashes or accidents.

Product manufacturing process
Photo: Virtual Perceptions

4) Inventory Management

Once the product is out of the factory, it needs to be stored in inventory before it gets shipped off to the vendor. Even at this stage of the game, AR can have a tangible impact on the bottom line. To see this, you don’t need to look further than DHL’s pilot project that was carried out in the Netherlands.

In a nutshell, the company used AR technology to guide employees inside a warehouse and help them in the picking process. What DHL found was that the introduction of AR glasses increased the employees’ efficiency by 25 per cent.

5) Improving safety

According to Jonathan Wilkins from EU Automation, safety is another area where VR can be successfully applied. By digitally simulating the production processes, it’s possible to identify dangerous manoeuvres in advance. Automotive giant Ford, for example, has already reduced employees’ injuries by 70 per cent thanks to VR.

The same process can be used to improve consumers’ safety by simulating the real circumstances in which a product will be used. For example, automotive manufacturers can reproduce various weather and traffic conditions to optimise the safety features of their vehicles.

6) Concluding remarks

As we’ve seen from this brief foray into a single industry, virtual technology has plenty to offer in all manufacturing stages. The benefits of AR and VR are not limited to, manufacturing alone; several other sectors are being transformed by this revolutionary technology.

In the future, virtual technology may become so ubiquitous that any company that doesn’t incorporate it in its day-to-day activities will go the way of the dinosaurs: extinct.

Jen McKenzie

Business Consultant

Jen McKenzie is a writer at and independent business consultant from New York. She writes extensively on business, education and human resource topics. She can be found at @jenmcknzie